How We Think About Our Bodies & Spiritual Lives: Gnosticism
How we think about our bodies and spiritual lives does not come without outside influence.
There is a vast array of approaches to embodiment and how it may, or may not, influence the lives of humanity. Over hundreds of years it has been discussed and debated in philosophy, theology, congregational settings, approaches to education, and more. In my own experience the idea of embodiment has been controversial and taught with conflicting approaches. In one breath it would be taught that our bodies are a temple for God’s dwelling and so should be treated with care; in another that our bodies are a distraction from faithful living; in another that we were created in God’s image; and in another that all things physical, including our bodies, will one day pass away and all that matters is our hearts and souls which will live with God forever. The variety of ways embodiment is discussed is not specific to my own experiences, nor is it specific to Christianity.
There are myriad voices contributing to conversations around embodiment: some placing great value in it, others intentionally disconnecting from it. These voices come from across the centuries, so there is no shortage of resources in this conversation. While it is not necessary to cover them all, there are a few which are particularly important within the discussion of an embodied approach to spiritual formation. Today we are going to start with an introduction to Gnosticism. Some of the content below is a little academic and history focused, but bear with me! I promise it will be helpful as we continue to dive into our conversation on embodiment and spiritual formation.
In her book The Wisdom of Your Body, Hillary McBride states that,
Although the church originally condemned Gnosticism as a heresy, the church was not (and still is not) immune to a Gnostic worldview, which at its worst suggested that matter was evil, the spirit and body were distinct, and we needed to escape from this world in order to find salvation. Plato, Descartes, and Gnosticism suggested that the body has needs and limitations but that truth exists in the mind. The goal is to leave the body, rising above it to find that our being now exists in a space not weighed down by the realness of flesh and blood and pain and death and desire.
Western philosophy has been heavily influenced by Gnosticism, Greek philosophers like Plato, and later thinkers like Descartes. Each of these perspectives and people have had great influence not only on philosophy and culture, but religious life as well. Before examining specifics around the influence of Plato, Descartes and others, we begin with a look at Gnosticism and its deep roots in the ways embodied life has been viewed over the centuries.
Gnosticism comes from the word “Gnostic,” which “signifies a person who has been ‘initiated,’ or someone who possesses the secret ‘knowledge’ as an enlightened one.” (Mursell, The Story of Christian Spirituality, 44. ) This stems from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” According to Robert M. Grant in his piece titled Gnostic Spirituality, most ancient Gnostics who called themselves Christians were from the second through fourth centuries. Those within the Gnostic thought world, or religion, placed particularly high value on intellect, and held a dualistic view of materiality and spirituality, believing them to be necessarily separate. They could not exist together. Materiality, for the Gnostics, did not merely mean material possessions, but also human bodies themselves. This left them with a perspective that valued knowledge and spirit above all else; seeing the body as “inherently corrupt” and seeing only the spirit as good and “worthy of salvation.” (sound familiar to anything you've heard before?)
As a result, “many aspects of the Christian Gnostic system were so anti-material that even the physicality of Jesus was held in suspicion by some groups.” ( Tyson, Invitation to Christian Spirituality, 54n) This suspicion around Jesus’ physicality left some groups within Gnosticism arguing that Jesus only seemed to have a physical human body, but in reality his body was made of spirit not flesh. This belief goes directly against the Christian claim that Jesus the Christ is God incarnate, denying the belief that the “Word became flesh.” (John 1:14) To the Gnostics, saying that Christ was God in flesh would have been equal to saying that “God became evil.” (Tyson, Invitation to Christian Spirituality, 54n) This intense revulsion to embodied life lingered and continues to influence Christian thinkers to this day.
This aversion to the physical and the intentional separation between mind and body, spiritual and physical, has had enormous effects on our lives of faith and how we see our bodies and whole selves. And Gnosticism is only one example of influences that have been around for centuries. Based on our personal experiences alone we may already know there is something broken in the ways we understand our whole selves, and when we begin to see all of the influences that have unknowingly influenced us that picture becomes even more clear.
As we continue in this conversation I invite you to reflect on the experiences and things you have heard (or even told yourself) that have had an influence on the way you see your whole self and spiritual life. How do you see yourself? Do you understand yourself to be just a mind? Body? Heart? Spirit? Combination? How do you understand the connection between mind, body, heart, and soul? What is the connection between your embodied self and your spiritual life? Is there one?
The next post I make will take a look at some other major influences that have kept us disembodied and after that we will turn to positive influences in the conversation on embodiment and spirituality. Before we can move forward we need to know where we've been. This is the first step.
Gordon Mursell, The Story of Christian Spirituality: Two Thousand Years, from East to West
(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 44.
Hillary L McBride, The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection
through Embodied Living (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Collins, 2021), 7.
John R Tyson, Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999), 54.
Bernard Mcginn, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclercq, Christian Spirituality: Origins to the
Twelfth Century (New York: Crossroad, 2000), 44.